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gRACE & RACE (+ Racism) – Part 2
By Swee Ann KOH
Posted in Culture
This is Part Two of my article on gRACE & RACE (+ Racism). Part One is written for the dominant group within the Second Peoples in the church, inviting them to grace-full conversations on Race, Racism, White Privilege and Power in the church.
I suggested that if we want to have a life-giving conversation on this uncomfortable issue, we need grace - God’s grace - and be grace-full. Without grace, the conversations might escalate into conflicts and damage relationships. I also suggested in the first article four things that might help us to have grace-full conversations: (1) Listen, listen and listen again; (2) No buts; (3) Don’t pit one ism against another and (4) don’t automatically move to guilt-setting.
This article is meant for the minorities within the Second Peoples of the Uniting Church.
Some of you know that I have written over the years on this matter. I am probably a pain in the neck for some in the dominant group. I am amused whenever I post on race, racism, white privilege and power on my Facebook, who would comment or engage in the conversations. I am equally intrigued with those who choose not to comment at all. I think their non-engagement or silence speaks louder than those who respond.
Recently a CALD colleague was sharing that he/she has never experienced racism before, and this is something we found hard to believe. The colleague migrated to Australia more than 15 years ago. The colleague was also offended that some of us used the word ‘white’ to refer to those from the dominant group. I am glad that the colleague has never experience racism before, but I hope that the colleague will listen with compassion to those who have experienced racism in the church and hear their pains.
Here are four things that might help us to have grace-full conversations on race, racism, white privilege and power.
- Share your stories
Silence is no longer and option. We have danced around the big elephant in the church for too long. Those who have experienced racism within the church need to find the courage to speak up or write down their experiences. There are many reasons why we might be reluctant to “speak out”. I understand some of us might not feel safe. Some of us might not want to offend. Or some of us might think it wouldn’t make any difference anyway. And some might have given up. I sincerely hope not.
I have been involved with the Uniting Church since I came to Melbourne, Australia since 1983. I was ordained in January 1991. I love the Uniting Church in Australia for our strong justice focus and our special relationship with the First Peoples. This is the church that formed and nurtured me for many years. Truth be told I only found my voice within our church about ten years ago. You could call it my ‘Ah-ha’ moment. I can’t speak truth to power if I don’t speak. I wasn’t prepared to dance around the elephant anymore. I concluded that if I truly love our church, I can’t remain silent. My silence is a form of colluding and I am not prepared to do that anymore.
I am very conscious when I am speaking truth to power, not everyone likes it. I can’t speak truth to power if I need to be liked by all. I can’t speak truth to power if I am not prepared to accept the costs. I know it's hard not to care when people don't like you, but I also know that not everyone will like me, so I have to get used to it. Truth must be declared, and silence is not an option! Remember you don’t do this alone. You have a cloud of witnesses supporting you with similar stories and shared experiences!
- Don’t accept the “it’s not my intention" excuse
When the chance comes for some people to take responsibility for their actions, you may hear them say, "It was never my intent..." Many may use their "original intent" as a way of defending themselves, shying away from accountability and admitting fault. They may, in fact, even direct anger back at you, the person who was hurt in the first place:
- "That wasn't what I meant -- you're so sensitive."
- "I didn't mean anything when I said that, why are you overreacting?"
- "I never intended for things to be this way, you need to relax."
Watch out for apologies like these, and ask yourself, does the intent of someone's actions truly matter in the end once the damage has been done?
I have heard it over and over again: “I never meant any harm…” “It was never my intent…” “I am not a racist…” “I am not a homophobe…” “I’m not a sexist…”
If someone hurts you on purpose or on accident, is the end result not the same, no matter the original intent?
I cannot tell you how often I’ve seen people attempt to deflect criticism about their racist and oppressive language or actions by making the conversation about their intent. We can’t allow those from the dominant culture who claim an absence or lack of intent as an excuse for causing offence. In the end, what does the intent of action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us?
- You will offend. Don’t be surprised with push backs.
Grace-full conversations on racism and racial justice will offend some people. It’s a given. There is no escape. White fragility is a real thing.
White Fragility is a state in which white people find even a minimal challenge to their position intolerable. This intolerance triggers a range of defensive moves, including argumentation, invalidation, silence, withdrawal and claims of being attacked and misunderstood. These moves function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and maintain white control.
Why does race seem to be the hardest word for white people? Dr Robin DiAngelo – a renowned anti-racism educator – argues that the underlying cause is environmental. White people in settler colonial contexts live in a racially insular social bubble. This environment builds an atmosphere of racial comfort, but reduces their capacity to tolerate racial stress. Dr DiAngelo – author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy – describes this lack of racial stamina as 'White Fragility'.
Grace-full conversations on race, racism, white privilege and power will still offend some people. However, as you grow more confident in sharing your stories, you’re also going to have to learn to face those who want to silence you. There will always be people whose personalities are set on attack or defensive mode. It’s important that you remain calm but assertive if you feel like someone is trying to bully you or minimise your experiences. Don’t allow yourself to get frazzled or react with low blows. Don’t cater to them or allow them to browbeat you either. Accept the cost of speaking truth to power.
- Racists are also created in the image of God, but racism isn’t
It’s important to remember that racists are also created in the image of God. God loves all people unconditionally. They are not our enemies. Jesus said, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44,45)
Yes, some people might say that racists have tarnished the image of God or defaced the image of God, but God still love them. We need to remember this and be grace-full and gracious in our conversations. Some of my might think this is unrealistic. I know this isn’t easy and that’s why we need the grace of God.
Equity and not Equality
I am not seeking equality as a member of the minorities within the Second Peoples in our church. I am seeking equity. I believe we cannot be a church that is true to the demands of the Gospel if we do not act justly, if we do not act to root out racism in the structures of our church. And we cannot achieve personal holiness if we do not love justly, if we do not seek equity and respect all human beings, regardless of their race, language, or ethnic heritage.
I love my colleagues from the dominant group within the church. Most, if not all, are not racists. Most of them understand that racism exists in our church. They are sensitive and supportive to the cause of combating racism within our church.
However, there is a form of racism that is difficult to eradicate, the institutional or structural racism. This type of racism exists where patterns of racial superiority are embedded in the systems and institutions of church and society. Such racism is less blatant and more complex, but it exists, nonetheless. It is present wherever systems and institutions are created and maintained in such a way that they provide privilege or prejudice for one race over others. This type of racism can be seen, to varying degrees, in many of our social, economic, and political structures, including the structures of our Church. Organisations, including the church, are willing to deal with individual racism, but institutional or structural racism is entirely a different story. That’s our challenge. Are those in power willing to share? Are they willing to disassemble the structure so that the minorities are empowered?
Finally, when we speak truth to power, we need to speak in love. (Ephesians 4:29) The “love” referred to in this verse is agape love, a self-sacrificial love that works for the benefit of the loved one. We speak truth in order to build up. Several verses later Paul writes, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). Our words should be beneficial to the hearers of those words. We should speak truth in love. The question is, ‘What does speak truth to power mean to you?’
I often remind myself of the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.
 I am trying to protect the person’s identity.
Rev Swee Ann Koh has been a Minister of Uniting Church since 1991. Originally, from Singapore, he did all his theological training in Melbourne. He has long had a passion for diversity and inclusion and he enjoys sharing his intercultural experiences. In his current role with the equipping Leadership for Mission, Swee Ann strongly advocates for the CALD Congregations and Faith Communities within the Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania.
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"The Day of Mourning worship service encourages us to pause to remember the violence and dispossession inflicted on our First Peoples, and to lament that as a Church and as Second Peoples, we were and remain complicit." - Dr Deidre Palmer
Tomorrow (Wednesday 5 February) Rev Swee Ann Koh will lead an Intercultural Lunch Conversation about grace and race. This article is the first part of his thoughts on this topic.